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Evaluating Life In the Field of Dreams

11217832_10153091968598031_7649796920151930159_oLast week I temporarily upped sticks and headed down south to Glastonbury Festival to spend four nights camping on a (mahoosive!) farm with another 200,000 people or so.

It was my return to the festival after my first visit exactly ten years ago in 2005, when I had literally just left university. At that time, I had spent the month of June firstly partying in Ayia Napa for a week, on a ridiculously boozy holiday that resulted in a dramatic parting of ways with a friend, which left me distraught (however, ten years later that same friend and I have found each other again and are now boyfriend and girlfriend, so all’s well that ends well), before returning home to head straight to Download Festival for a weekend. So, by the time that Glastonbury rolled round, I was tired, stressed about recent events and concerned about the future (I was about to graduate and return home to live with my parents with no job prospects on the horizon). All of that, coupled with the rain that drenched us for most of the weekend, left me thinking, ‘this overrated festival is hard work, I’ll not be back’.

Fast forward ten years and I found myself heading back down there. Why? Well, a group of friends have been going for the past five years or so and always rave upon their return about the festival. So, when the opportunity arose to head down there this year, I thought ‘why not? I’ve not been to a big festival in quite a few years, let’s do this!’

Glastonbury did not disappoint, and changed my opinion of the annual festival massively. It has grown beyond belief since my last visit and was simply awe-inspiring. You would have to go at least ten times in order to do and see all the things you wanted and there were many points over the weekend when I wished I could split myself into a hundred pieces to go and experience the many different things taking place. Believe me, my Glastonbury Bucket List is very long now, so I will be returning!

Not only was the weekend full of new, exciting experiences that left me marvelling at how much the festival has grown since I was last there, but it also gave me a chance to reflect on how life has changed for me personally over the last ten years. Since that uncertain 21-year-old, at a cross-roads in life, last went to Glastonbury, life has opened up in ways I couldn’t have imagined:

… I’ve followed three different career paths to date, although writing has been the theme that has run throughout and linked each of them together.

… My tastes in all things have grown and developed in a variety of ways.

… I’ve travelled to places I never planned to, or thought in my humble, young mind that I would visit.

… I’ve met and made friends with some amazing people.

… I’ve been lucky enough to fall in love.

… I’ve made life decisions I didn’t want to have to make, and I’ve had to try and let that love go in order to be true to myself.

… I’ve realised that letting go of someone you love can be the hardest thing in the world.

… I’ve made mistakes.

… I’ve been given a chance to try again.

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The A to Z of Baking: D is for Double Chocolate Espresso Cake

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Last week I made the next recipe for my  A to Z challenge a few days earlier than usual because I was due to go to Glastonbury. So, no sooner had I gotten over over the stressful chocolate brownie experience before I was back in the kitchen again making Double Chocolate Espresso Cake.

This time, however, I took to the baking experience with a much more positive attitude and even managed to bake the cake alongside making tea for my boyfriend and sister, with no stress, tantrums or tears.

The cake turned out really well, although it took a while because I had to cook the two cakes in two batches as my oven was too small to fit in two tins.

The biggest hassle this week was finding people to eat the cake before I headed off to spend the best part of a week in a field. I originally planned to take the cake with me to Glastonbury to share with friends but later came to the conclusion that a 4.5 hour journey in a hot car would probably not be the best idea for a chocolate cake. So, with a day to go I shared the cake out amongst my parents, and friends and colleagues based around the University where I work.

imageIt received positive feedback, and one colleague even commented: “you’re getting really good at this.” I’m not sure if they were just being polite but I’ll take it anyway.

High points

Easier to make than expected, and the mix of coffee, chocolate and caramel makes for a truly decadent treat.

Low points

The original recipe called for the cake to be cut into four layers but I found this impossible to do without destroying the cake so opted for two layers.

Here’s the recipe I followed:

Ingredients

  • 85g good quality dark chocolate, minimum 60% cocoa solids
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 340g soft light brown sugar
  • 290ml milk
  • 110g unsalted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 75ml espresso coffee (I used Tiramisu flavoured filter coffee)
  • 225g plain flour
  • 1tsp bicarbonate of soda

For the filling

  • 397g tin of caramel (dulce de leche)

For the icing

  • 65g good quality dark chocolate, minimum 60% cocoa solids
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 200g icing sugar
  • 20g good quality dark cocoa powder
  • Few drops of vanilla extract
  • 25ml strong espresso coffee (again I used Tiramisu flavoured filter coffee)

Heat the oven to 190C / fan 170C / gas 5. Lightly grease the base of two 8in sandwich tins. Break the chocolate into small pieces and put in a heavy based saucepan with the vanilla, half the sugar and half the milk. Melt over a low heat, stirring until smooth. Set aside to cook. Put the butter and remaining sugar into a large bowl and, using an electric whisk, beat until light and fluffy. Break the eggs into a bowl and best lightly with a fork to break them up. Add to the creamed mixture in several additions, beating well between each, then stir in the chocolate mixture and the espresso. Sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda over the surface and fold in carefully and thoroughly. Stir in the remaining milk; the mixture should be the consistency of a thick batter.

Divide the mixture between the time and bake in the middle of the oven for 35-40 minutes. When cooked, the cakes should feel spongy to the touch and should be evenly set. Leave to cook in the tins for a few minutes before turning out to cool on a white rack.

To make the icing, break the chocolate into small pieces and put into s heatproof bowl. Set over a saucepan of just boiled water and leave it to melt, giving it an occasional stir. When the chocolate has melted, remove from the pan and cool. Whisk the butter in a bowl using an electrician whisk, until light and fluffy. Sift the icing sugar and cocoa powder into a separate bowl, then gradually add to the butter, with the electric whisk still running. Stir in the chocolate and vanilla, then beat in the espresso until smooth.

To assemble, cut each cake into two layers. Set aside the best layer for the top, then spread the others with the caramel. Stack the cakes. Spread the icing sugar over the top and sides using a palette knife, and swirl the top with the knife. Chill briefly to set the icing, before cutting into slices to serve.

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phonto

The A to Z of Baking: C is for Chocolate Brownies

phontoThe aim of this challenge is to try out new and different recipes, so some of you may be wondering why I opted for chocolate brownies this week. Let’s face it, there are plenty of much more outlandish, elaborate, exciting recipes out there than good ol’ chocolate brownies. But the thing is, I was given this recipe by a colleague a while ago, after sampling the most amazing chocolate brownie made following this recipe. Indulgent, gooey in all the right places… it. was. perfection. So, I stored it in my recipe bank and intended to make it but never got round to it, which was why it was my perfect choice for the letter ‘C’.

This week’s baking experience, however, was less than perfect to begin with. I decided to bake the brownies to take into work on Friday because it was my birthday on Saturday, so I thought that I would take the brownies in as a pre-birthday treat for everyone. Arriving home later than expected on Thursday and with limited time to bake before heading out again, I set about creating the brownies.

I was feeling tense, stress and against the clock from the second I started baking, so I just knew something had to give. I didn’t read the recipe through before beginning as I was in a rush, so I read the line in the method that stated:  ‘Mix together all dry ingredients and then place to one side’ and dutifully weighed and mixed the plain flour, cocoa powder and sugar together. Then, I followed the next instruction below, which read: ‘Cream room temperature butter (bar 2 tbsp) and sugar together. Once white and fluffy beat in one egg at a time until combined.’

‘WTF!’ I thought. ‘I’ve already mixed the sugar in with the blimmin’ dry ingredients and I don’t have enough ingredients to start all over again. Nor do I have time to go out to the shop for more!’ After much cursing under my breath, I had a quick word with myself. I do not want to fail on my baking challenge, nor did I want to let my colleagues down the next day and turn up to work empty handed, so I decided – rightly or wrongly – to mix the small amount of brown sugar I had left in the cupboard in with the butter. I didn’t weigh it but there wasn’t much there.

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The grumpy baker is NOT amused!

I was even more of a grumpy mood now, inwardly berating myself for being such a stress head and letting things get to me, and as I added in the eggs and saw them curdling with the  butter and bit of sugar, my mood worsened. Nonetheless, I plugged on and managed to get the brownie mixture in the oven on time, not before burning my hand on the oven shelf because I was in a rush and didn’t bother to put the oven gloves on. I deserved that one.

It was then when the brownies were in the oven that I realised I had completely forgotten to add the buttermilk I had bought! (What else am I going to use it for before it goes off?!) I definitely didn’t hold out much hope of these brownies turning out to be edible and was fully preparing myself for heading to the supermarket on the way to work to pick up cake for everyone.

Lo and behold however, the brownies came out of the oven and apart from the edges, which were slightly tough, it turned out lovely – albeit super sweet, probably down to the extra sugar I added! I was joyous, I was relieved, and I decided to chop them into small squares because the sweetness of them all meant that you really didn’t need a slab.

IMG_0042I took the cakes to work on Friday and they were happily demolished by my colleagues. Despite my best efforts, the brownies ended up not exactly being made with love, but they sure did turn out damn tasty. I’ll definitely make them again, but I will go into it with a clearer head and more time next time!

High points

The recipe is very easy to follow if you follow it correctly and, as I found out, even if you don’t follow it correctly, you’re still in with a fighting chance of a good brownie.

Low points

The low point was the error in the method ordering in the recipe, which I have corrected below. The other low point was my mood and my burnt hand!

Here’s the recipe I followed, along with my notes:

Ingredients

  • 185g unsalted butter
  • 160g dark chocolate
  • 85g plain flour
  • 40g cocoa powder
  • 280g caster sugar
  • 3 large eggs (I used 4 medium eggs)
  • ¼ cup buttermilk (which I think is about 60ml? Do check, though!) I forgot to put this in, in my made baking rush, but it didn’t seem to affect the overall outcome!
  • 100g chocolate chips

Optional Secret Ingredients That Make It Better!

  • 2 tablespoons golden syrup – I DID add this!
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract – DID add this!
  • 20-30g hot chocolate powder – I didn’t add this.
  • 50g chopped nuts or dried fruit – I didn’t add this.
  • 20ml oil (on top of butter) – I didn’t add this.
  • ¼ tsp salt – I didn’t add this.
  • 1 teaspoon coffee (mix in with other wet ingredients) – I didn’t add this.
  • Marshmallows – I didn’t add this.

Method

  • Grease tins and line with greaseproof paper.
  • Preheat oven to 180˚C or 160˚C in a fan assisted oven.
  • Cream room temperature butter (bar 2 tbsp) and sugar together. Once white and fluffy beat in one egg at a time until combined.
  • Mix together all remaining dry ingredients and then place to one side.
  • Melt the chocolate and 2 tbsp butter either over simmering water or in the microwave and add into the butter/sugar mix once cooled slightly.
  • Add in any wet ingredients.
  • Mix once more and then sift in the dry ingredients and whisk together.
  • Fold in the chocolate chips.
  • Pour into tins and bake from 20-35 minutes, checking every 10 minutes. They should still be soft and gooey in the middle and not completely cooked.
  • If you want to add marshmallows to the top cover the now cooked brownie with marshmallows and place the tin under the grill for a few seconds. Once they are browned take them out and wait for them to cool and cut.
  • ***It will be very sticky when you try to cut the brownie because of the mallows. In a plate or bowl next to you mix 3tbsp icing sugar and 1tbsp corn flour. Dust the knife after every cut to help cut the brownie.***
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TFI The Era of the Selfie?

wpid-keep-calm20150615175321.png.pngLast Friday evening, I settled down to watch (with a slice of my new creation, Blueberry Swirl Cheesecake, no less) the one-off return of 90s entertainment show TFI Friday. The show’s revival, whilst it may have had mixed reviews, provided a nostalgic trip down memory lane for its fans, mixing live features with flashbacks to its hey-day.  The following evening, Channel 4 aired the documentary, ‘The 90s: Ten Years That Changed the World.’

The weekend’s viewing schedule was clearly all part of Channel 4’s plan to get us feeling nostalgic for the 90s and let me tell you, it certainly worked on me, although it wasn’t my version of the 90s that I wanted to go back and experience. I wasn’t old enough to go out partying in the 90s – I only hit 16 in the year 2000 – so I spent the decade listening to Take That and sharing stolen kisses with my Mark Owen poster (well, at least I’m honest…!), dreaming of being the sixth Spice Girl and spending Saturday afternoons sat in the attic, waiting patiently for ‘Ooh Ahh… Just a Little Bit’ by Gina G to come on Atlantic 252 so that I could hit record on my cassette player.

So, whilst I have no burning desire to go back in time and do all that again, watching these two programmes at the weekend really made me wish I’d been older in the 90s to really experience all that it had to offer. Maybe it was all just cleverly edited, but the snapshots shown on TV this weekend illustrated a decade of eclectic music, vibrant public personalities, and a little bit of anarchy still left over from previous decades. Compared to the celebrity culture of today, where magazines will pore over the slightest imperfection on a celeb’s skin, or people will line up to be ridiculed on reality TV, the 90s seemed much more honest, much more REAL. Not afraid to do something original for fear of being lambasted on a social media platform that didn’t yet exist.

It made me question what we’ll have to look back on and feel misty-eyed over when we, as a collective, look back on the current decade in years to come. Will a nostalgic programme on the era just be a montage of selfies?… Will we reminisce over the escapades of our favourite perma-tanned ‘stars’ from the likes of TOWIE, Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore or Big Brother? (Can I add here that I do NOT watch any of these programmes!)…. Will we look back and laugh at that simple time when we only had Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Google+, WhatsApp ( the list goes on…) to chat to each other over?…

There’s no denying that digital technologies are increasingly becoming a part of our everyday lives and fast changing the way we live, so maybe that will be the headline from this decade, but I can’t help wondering where this digital boom will take us?

Maybe in 20 years we’ll look back on this decade as a society and think, ‘ah, that was a great time.’ I hope so. But sometimes, I really do wonder.

What do you think? Do you think the current decade will be a defining one for us? Were you, unlike myself, old enough to experience the 90s as an adult? Was it as good as Channel 4 seemed to remember, or was it not all it cracked up to be? Please do share your thoughts with me!

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The A to Z of Baking: B is for Blueberry Swirl Cheesecake

imageAfter the bird related fun of last week’s baking challenge, week two was positively dull in comparison, I’ll be honest! They decided not to bring me any extra ingredients this time around, maybe next week…

I’ve been fancying making a blueberry cheesecake for a while, so it was an obvious choice for the a B of my baking challenge. I only own a few bits of baking equipment, so I expected to have to buy a few new things over the course of the baking challenge. This week, I had to invest in my first new item, a food processor, in order to follow the recipe below because it spoke of blending the blueberries and I wasn’t about to attempt that using my humble hand blender – imagine the state of the kitchen.

The cake turned out well, although I’ll admit that my blueberry swirl looks more like a blueberry has thrown up on the cake! I took the cake with me to my boyfriend’s mum’s when we visited at the weekend and it went down a treat.

The ideas and suggestions are rolling in now for the rest of the alphabet, so I’m excited about the creations that are still to come!

High points

This cheesecake is super easy to make, you essentially just whack all of the ingredients, barring the base, into the food processor and mush it all up, before putting it in the oven to bake.

Low points

Although the blueberry swirl looks interesting on the cake, I would have liked the cake to have a little more of a distinctive blueberry flavour. Still tasty, nonetheless.

TOP TIP: Tastes best when served straight from the fridge. We had some in Friday evening after a two-hour drive in a hot car, but the piece we tried Saturday evening from the fridge was much tastier.

Here’s the recipe I followed:

125g digestive biscuits
50g butter
150g blueberries
150g caster sugar, plus 3 tbsp extra
400g cream cheese
250g mascarpone
2 large eggs, plus 1 large egg yolk
½ tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp plain flour

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/Gas 4). Grease the cake tin. Put the biscuits in a large food bag and crush with a rolling pin. Melt the butter in a pan, then add the biscuit crumbs and stir until well-coated. Press the crumbs into the base of the tin.

2. Put the blueberries and the 3 tablespoons of caster sugar in a food processor and whiz until smooth, then push the mixture through a nylon sieve into a small pan. Bring to the boil, then allow to simmer for 3–5 minutes, or until thickened and jammy. Set aside. Rinse the goblet of the food processor.

3. Put all the remaining ingredients into the food processor and whiz until well combined. Pour the mixture onto the biscuit base and smooth the top. With a teaspoon, carefully drizzle the blueberry mixture over the cream cheese mixture in a swirly pattern. Bake the cheesecake for 40 minutes, or until it has set but still has a slight wobble in the middle when you shake the tin. Leave to cool in the oven for an hour, then cool completely and serve.

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The A to Z of Baking: A is for Apple & Walnut Cupcakes

1433683177401On Friday evening, I launched into creating the ‘A’ of my A to Z of Baking challenge with gusto. I decided to try Apple and Walnut Cupcakes for the first time and, as I had a friend’s barbecue to go to on Saturday afternoon, I thought it would be a great opportunity to make the cakes to take with me, so that I wouldn’t be stuck with loads of cupcakes at home that I would just have to eat myself. Baking for other people is always so much more enjoyable and worthwhile.

It was quite late in the evening before I got around to making the cupcakes and despite a minor hiccup, where I realised I needed 600g of icing sugar (how much?!) for the cake topping and I only had 300g (it still tasted fine – it was too late to head back out to the shop for more), all was going well. That was, until I was about to pour the cake mix into the cases, when my cat Theo proudly waltzed through the cat flap… with a dead bird in his mouth. Great. When I saw what he was carrying, I shrieked like a banshee, causing him to drop the dead bird on the kitchen floor and bolt into the living room.

When I calmed down, I saw the funny side, although it was really sad that he had killed a lovely little bird. Theo had obviously heard that I was taking on a baking challenge and decided to take the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence quite literally and bring me an extra ingredient (‘four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie…’). Needless to say, the bird remained on the floor until the cakes were safely in the oven and I could deal with the situation and remove it from the house.

Overall, I was impressed with the result. The cakes didn’t look as disastrous as some of my previous concoctions, in fact they looked surprisingly good! Plus, the combination of apple, cinnamon and walnut worked really well and I got really positive feedback from all who tried them.

Not only did friends sample the cupcakes at the barbecue, but I even gave some cupcakes to some neighbours on Saturday morning, who had kindly taken it upon themselves to fill in the moon-like craters that have been spoiling our unadopted road for a long time and making motorists’ lives hell. As a small way of ‘thank you’, we offered them some cupcakes, which they gladly accepted, and told them all about the A to Z baking challenge. They enjoyed the cakes and told us, “We can’t wait for the letter ‘B’!” ;-)

High points

The apple, cinnamon and walnut combination tasted lovely and although a sweet treat, these cupcakes didn’t taste too sweet and sickly like some cupcakes have a tendency to. Plus, I was able to get 16 healthy looking cupcakes out of the mixture, so it’s a great recipe when you have a few people to cater for.

Low points

Dead-birdgate wasn’t ideal, although it made the experience more interesting. I could also have done with checking the quantities before going to buy ingredients. Although using half the required amount of icing sugar tasted fine, a little more icing sugar could have firmed up the topping a little more.

Here’s the recipe I followed (taken from the Hummingbird Bakery ‘Cake Days’ book):

For the sponge:                             For the frosting:

80g softened butter                     600g icing sugar
280g caster sugar                         100g softened butter
240g plain flour                             250g full fat cream cheese
1 tbsp. baking powder               Ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt                                     12-16 walnut halves
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
240ml whole milk
2 eggs
200g apples (peeled and cut
in small pieces)
50g chopped walnuts

1. Beat together the butter, sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon
on low speed until the consistency of fine bread crumbs.
2. Whisk eggs and milk and pour 3/4 of the mixture into the dry ingredients.
Mix on low speed first, pour in the remaining milk mixture and mix on medium
speed until the batter is smooth.
3. Stir apples and walnuts into the batter.
4. Fill paper cases by about two-thirds and bake the cupcakes for 18-20
minutes at 190C
5. For the frosting: Beat icing sugar with butter on low speed until
sandy in texture.
6. Add cream cheese and mix on medium-to-high speed until the frosting is smooth.
7. Decorate the cupcakes with the frosting when they are cooled. Dust them with
cinnamon and put half a walnut on each.

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The A-Z of Baking: A 26-recipe challenge

The A to Z of Baking: A 26-Recipe Challenge

The A-Z of Baking: A 26-recipe challengeEarlier this week, I had a think about what my ‘thing’ was in life, my passion, the thing that makes me tick. My conclusion was that the closest I feel I have to my ‘thing’ is my love for writing and it’s something I want to hone.

Whilst I was considering stuff I enjoy doing and things I’d like to do more of, baking came to mind. I’ve always enjoyed it but tend to avoid doing it too often unless I have an occasion to bake for, otherwise I just have cake lying around the house that I will inevitably scoff and as a self-confessed greedy pig who really can’t get away with shovelling anything I like into my mouth, I could do without a few extra pieces of cake.

So, because I don’t bake very often, when I do have an occasion to bake for, I usually decide to bake something I have never tackled before – because there are so many recipes I stumble across that I want to try – but I generally end up in a rush, or mess something up in the method due to lack of practice, and the end result, whilst it may taste good, often looks appalling!! (Cue a pic of the disastrous-looking reindeer cupcakes I made for the Christmas charity bake-off at work last year):

reindeer cupcakes

Seriously, they looked nothing like the picture on the recipe and shortly after I took this photo, their Smartie noses slid off their bleak-looking faces. Bah humbug…

This afternoon, whilst mulling over an interesting piece of lemon and lavender cake with a colleague at a work away day, I had a lightbulb moment – mostly inspired by my colleague, I’ll be honest. If there are so many recipes out there that I want to try, why not work my way through the alphabet and try them all out, for no good reason at all other than the sheer pleasure, and challenge, of it?!

So, the A to Z of Baking: A 26-Recipe Challenge is born! Once a week for the next 26 weeks, I pledge to bake a sweet creation that corresponds with each letter of the alphabet, beginning this weekend with the letter A. Sure, I – and my friends and family! – will likely consume a fair few more calories but it’ll be a great opportunity to try out some new recipes and most of all, it’ll be fun! It will be like the film/book Julie and Julia, only with a tonne more sugar and probably not quite as tricky of some of those French recipes.

Each week, I will post the recipe I have tried out, along with my high and low points, and the overall verdict.

Why not take up the challenge with me, if you fancy it? Or please feel free to share any weird and wonderful sweet bake recipes you have! Any inspiration for letters ‘X’ and ‘Z’, maybe even ‘Q’, are also welcome! ;-)

I’ll post my first recipe this weekend. Wish me luck!

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